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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Geoffrey Woodcox's blog

Strange Things Found: Five Unusual Artifacts in the Collection of the North Dakota State Historical Society

I am one of the fortunate people who get to work with and protect some of the treasures of our state. As it turns out, a few of those treasures are a little unusual. The State Historical Society began formal collecting efforts in the early 1900s. In the intervening century, what is now the Museum Division has assembled a collection of a little over 74,000 artifacts (this does not include the holdings of our other collecting divisions). With a collection of that size I still find things that surprise me, even after four years of working here.

1. Patsy the Calf (2010.52.1)

Patsy the Calf

Born on a farm in the Williston area, Patsy is a unique calf. If you look closely at her chest, you’ll see a twin that never separated while she was in the womb, leaving a mouth and undeveloped eyes under her neck and a large bulge on her rib cage. She was calved in April1976 and lived until June of that year before dying of pneumonia. Upon her death, the family decided to have her remains preserved by a taxidermist. Twenty-four years later, in 2010, she was donated to the State Historical Society. Keeping Patsy’s remains preserves an unusual part of farm life in an agricultural state.

2. Buffalo Hide Chair (13346)

Buffalo Hide Chair

We have many pieces of furniture in the collection that are upholstered in buffalo hide, invariably with horns used for components such as the bottoms of chair legs, armrests, and back supports. Horn furniture was popular and stylish in the late 19th century, though most mass- produced pieces were made with cow, rather than buffalo parts. To modern eyes, including my own, the look of horn furniture can be somewhat…unsettling…to say the least, and that’s why I included it on the list. We believe it was produced in the 1880s in Kidder County. With the prevalence of buffalo in North Dakota’s natural history, our collection of horn furniture is a very North Dakotan twist on a popular fad.

3. Novelty Coffee Pot (1994.12.1)

Novelty Coffee Pot

Some items just make you scratch your head, and this is one of them. All we know about the coffee pot is that it was given to the mayor of Pembina, North Dakota, around 1900. Glued to the side are rifle cartridges, dice, seashells, pocket watches, and military buttons. The list could go on. All of this was given a thick coat of gold paint. Who did this and why did they do it? The world may never know.

4. Shackles (1982.48.8)


Some of our unusual items are not unusual because of what they are, but because of the story associated with them. These shackles were used to restrain a horse thief known as “Club Foot” Wilson, who had stolen two mares in Mercer County, Dakota Territory, in 1884. At the time, there was a vote to decide the county seat, with a choice between the towns of Causey and Stanton. Realizing the race was tight, local officials offered to set Wilson free in return for his voting for Stanton, which he of course did. According to the donor, Stanton won by one vote, though the records I have at my disposal do not confirm that. By keeping this item, we preserve an unusual story about justice in Dakota Territory.

5. A Pioneer Murder Weapon (10895)

Model 1842 Springfield Musket

In February 1897, eight members of the Spicer family were brutally murdered in rural Emmons County. While there are conflicting accounts regarding motive, Thomas Spicer, head of the family, was shot and killed with the Model 1842 Springfield musket pictured above, while working in a cow shed. The remaining members of his family, including five other adults and two babies, were killed with other weapons. Five men were arrested in connection with the murders and though all were initially sentenced to death, two eventually went free for lack of evidence. It is unlikely that we would even be offered an item like this in 2017. Preserving it however, tells a story about the dangers of pioneer life.

Top 5 Most Fascinating World War I Artifacts in the State Historical Society Collection

One of the things I love most about my job is that I get to work with a truly world class collection. It is the product of over a century of collecting, and with nearly 74,000 artifacts, it never ceases to surprise me. We have lots of things that are just downright fascinating to me, not because of what they are, but because of what they represent and what they speak to. Items that give a human touch to an event or time period, or that give us an idea of what it was like to be there.

Our collection of World War I artifacts is rich with such items. The State Historical Society collected extensively during the war, bringing in artifacts from both individuals and from the US Government. I’d like to share my list of the top 5 most fascinating World War I artifacts, all items that will be on display in the Sperry Gallery at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum starting in August.

1. Orchestra Ticket and US Army Uniform Jacket (12455.1, 12455.3)

US Army Uniform JAcket and Orchestra Ticket

I recently completed a major project with our military uniform collection. I quickly learned to check the pockets of uniforms, because I started finding surprises. One of the best was an orchestra ticket from France crumpled into the breast pocket of a uniform jacket, like it had been forgotten there. What makes it fascinating to me? The last person to touch that ticket was probably the man who wore the uniform, and it may have even been when he was still in France. There is no way to know. It’s a very human thing to do, to forget things in your pockets, and it makes the artifact more personal to me.

2. French Combat Helmet with Battle Damage (1990.142.4)

French Combat Helmet

This French combat helmet, like many of our World War I artifacts, was sent to us directly from the battlefields of France by Major Dana Wright, a North Dakota soldier. What makes it unique is the actual battle damage—an entry hole from a bullet on the right side and an exit hole on the right front side. We don’t know how the helmet came into Major Wright’s possession, and we have no way of knowing if the French soldier who wore it survived, but it speaks firsthand to the conditions and dangers of World War I battlefields.

3. French Army Leave Slip (L815)

French Army Leave Slip

A resident of Fargo, Sydney Mason joined the French Army and served on the battlefields in the Ambulance Corps. In June 1917, he was granted leave to visit Paris. According to the pass, he was not allowed to carry luggage or take a horse. It fascinates me for two reasons: for one, I didn’t know that Americans joined the French Army during the war prior to seeing this. Also, how many of these documents actually survive? It is something that would commonly be disposed of after it was used, and many probably met that fate.

4. German Mourning Card (L92)

German Mourning Card

This mourning card was found in a German trench by a (then) private named Neil Reid, who was part of an American unit that had just pushed the Germans back. It was sent to his mother in North Dakota, who then loaned it to the State Historical Society. The card memorializes a 20- -year-old-German soldier killed in April 1918 named Peter Rappl. Was he a loved one of a soldier who had just retreated? These were often handed out to the families of fallen soldiers, but it is a question we can’t answer.

5. German Combat Helmet (1990.142.3)

German Combat Helmet

We have 18 German combat helmets in the collection and 22 dress helmets, making them far from rare. What makes this one unique? It was mailed to us directly from the Meuse Argonne Sector in France after being picked up on a battlefield there. I don’t mean that it was placed in a box and shipped to us—three 12-cent postage stamps and an address label were stuck to the side of the helmet. The label, which you can see in the photo above, is still attached.  Unfortunately the postage stamps were removed at some point in the last 100 years. I’ve heard you can mail almost anything as long as it has enough postage, but who knew you could drop a helmet in the mail and have it delivered?

You can see all of these items and many more in our World War I exhibit, which will be opening in August.